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26 July 2014

J’accuse: The Meaning of life

 - Sunday, 14 September 2008, 00:00 , by Jacques René Zammit

In his latest podcast (or as he insists on calling it – podgram) Stephen Fry speaks, among other things, about the “soul danger” that every blogger or columnist faces. A podcast incidentally, is a sort of radio programme available on the net that you can download and listen to at your leisure. Anyway, Fry believes that the “soul danger posed by having one’s own space – whether blog or column – is that it just turns you into a sort of prating imbecile, an overweaningly proud person ... like a columnist who thinks he has a right to yell his furies to the world”.

That was my transcript by the way so any mistakes are my own. In any case I share Stephen’s worries completely. Every time I sit down to type my excessively long column, I am burdened by the thought that after all this is just a collection of thoughts by someone who may very well be perceived as a pompous ass – and if Stephen Fry has these disquisitions, then I definitely should be doing some worrying myself.

I worry all the more today since the subject up for discussion is not a light one. Events of the week have dictated that without any ounce of doubt, I am to talk about such enormous subjects as why we are here and how we are supposed to make the best of it by concocting the best way to live happily together. Only a pompous ass could take on the subjects of philosophy, particle physics, ethics and morality all in one go. A pompous ass or a politician... but that is another story.

The big issue

First for the number lovers: 800 million particle collisions a second, 27 kilometres of tube, 4.4 billion protons, walloping into each other at 99.9 per cent of the speed of light in temperatures 100,000 times hotter than the sun. That, my friends, is what is going on at CERN – that’s the European Centre for Nuclear Research (and no they’re not dyslexic, they’re just French speaking). The scientific world has got ever so closer to find out the meaning of life. Or so they tell us bombastically when all they are doing (pardon the understatement) is looking for antimatter, hidden matter, anti-gravity and the things that make up 95 per cent of our Universe, which we don’t know anything about.

The way the press has put it, it seems that the CERN machine – the Large Hadron Collider – is our Toto who is rushing behind the curtain to discover that the mighty Wizard of Oz is just an old man showing off behind a load of contraptions. For the more controversial aspect of the issue read: we might be about to discover whether God exists. They just love that assertion. The scientific community isn’t particularly bothered with the deistic part of the equation – most of them have solved that equation ages ago and are more bothered with $100 dollar bets as to whether Higgs boson exists. (Trust me, just look it up and read about it... I could not explain it if I wanted to).

Yep. Stephen Hawkins and Peter Higgs have a bet going. Hawking bets Higgs is wrong and Higgs thinks that the genius on wheels is talking rubbish. The setting for this bet is a rather expensive piece of equipment worth many, many billions of whatever currency you fancy. Its main function is to make stuff collide. Protons actually. Because by colliding protons you get to see what they are made of. Don’t you just love the scientific method? How do you discover the stuff of life? Just bang a lot of it together in a rather expensive manner. Who said science wasn’t fun?

So boo to you Father Rice (that’s my school science teacher)... I was right after all when I smashed that test tube... this too is science. Just like the inquisitive toddler intent on discovering the primary function of whatever he lays his hands on, our scientific community is busy banging stuff together. Only there is a minor hitch. Or worry. Let’s say it could be major.

Black holes

Well, how shall I put it? The experiment comes with a bit of a warning. Some scientists have speculated that since what we are in essence doing is reproducing THE original big bang, albeit in a miniature version, one very possible side effect is the creation of a black hole. Now I do not know what you think but I am not very comfortable with the idea of an all-devouring orifice suddenly materialising (or de-materialising?) on the Franco-Swiss border. Quite frankly I think it sucks.

To be fair there seems to be an infinitesimal chance of what I described ever happening, and one of the 9,000 scientists drooling over the banging experiment thingy assures the world that the worst that can happen is a minor explosion and the $3.8 billion dollar tunnel and equipment suddenly become rubble. I’d hate to be there if it happens. Considering that the human race is currently many steps closer to answering questions like “What is the world made of?” “Why are we here?” and “Bovril or Marmalite?”, it is surprising that not enough fuss is being made about it all.

Or should I say that the wrong kind of fuss is being made in some quarters? “Wrong”, of course, depends on your particular perspective, but when you get people commenting (it’s them again) that that kind of money would have been better spent saving the poor of the world, you begin to wonder whether you are really pompous or whether you are definitely sitting on the right side of the wrong/right demarcation line. It’s not just us you know. There have been varying levels of reactions in the world: from the German schadenfreude (in Bild), which seemed rather unruffled by the potential end of the world situation, to the mass frenzy in the Indian subcontinent.

It seems that the Indian media is to shoulder much of the blame for reporting the event in “End of the World Is Nigh” fashion. A teenage girl in India went as far as killing herself by ingesting pesticide – worried that the world was coming to an end on 10 September. The cynic inside me leads me to say that she was right ... in a way... and maybe that is what it’s all about. The rumour doing the rounds on the net is that Nostradamus predicted that Geneva would be a good place not to be around in at this time. Superstition and conspiracy theories abound. The line between reason and blind faith is being tested as we speak.

I was particularly intrigued by the fact that in a UK Times survey of reactions in different countries, it was the Kenyan caretaker who reflected the Maltese mentality most. He expressed bewilderment when it was explained to him that scientists were seeking to answer the eternal question of how the Universe started. “This seems a very strange thing to spend money on... we could use that money in a much better way”.

Judas’ problem

It reminded me of the Judas and Jesus episode – which is well illustrated in that wonderful musical Jesus Christ Superstar. You know the one I am talking about – when Jesus was getting his tired feet rubbed with an expensive balm and Judas rebukes him for not having spent the money for the balm on a better cause. There may be no point to my quoting this particular story – I may even get someone telling me that even the devil can quote scriptures for his devilish purpose – but there is a common thread to all this.

The whole LHC issue has brought to the forefront of discussion the whole Religion v. Science debate. What business have we to question the work of the blind watchmaker? Shouldn’t science be devoting time and money to such things as that elusive cure for cancer? Well it should... and it is. This week’s Economist headlines the great strides being made in that field, particularly with regard to identifying the source of the problem as lying with stem cells. What the “religious” crowd fail to fathom is that this is not all about them. It is about making advances in what we are about and maybe... just maybe, that this too could be a step towards an important discovery that makes our lives better.

Right about at the same time as all this is going on, there is a parallel debate in the UK about whether Creationism should be included in science class. Until now the recommended course of action has been to refer to religion class for that sort of discussion while explaining that creationism is not of itself scientific. To my mind it should be a no brainer for believer and unbeliever alike. After all creationism requires faith – science requires proof. They are two legitimately different compartments that can only be mixed at the users’ peril. The moment you require proof from a believer or faith from a scientist you have breached the barrier of non-communicative disagreement.

The values of life

That leads me to the other big issue for me this week. Admittedly it has not been in the news but my meanderings on the net led me to an extremely interesting article by Jonathan Haidt – a researcher on psychology and emotion. In his article “What makes people vote Republican?”, Haidt examines the divide between liberals and conservatives and the values they hold to heart. It is an eye-opener for righteous liberals like myself who tend to believe that a conservative position is rooted in narrow-minded blindness.

What Haidt concludes is that the value structure of liberals is radically different from that of conservatives (duh!). In essence, conservatives value norms because they provide stability. Whether those norms emanate from socially developed values or from belief systems, the inherent stability they provide when everybody adheres to the system make them something worth fighting for.

For millennia, the guiding light for a large number of societies has been the same source such as religious belief. This leads to society being seen as an entity in itself that values its very integrity and identity of the collective. Look back at ancient norms – just open your Bible at Leviticus and you will find rules about menstruation, who can eat what and who can have sex with whom. Oftentimes rationality is not the basis of these laws but they provide comfort and a set of guidelines to live “safely”.

Liberals and libertarians would do well to understand the importance of this set of values to the conservative elements of society. Whenever they call for diversity and individual rights they should also understand why a conservative feels threatened by this sudden deviation from the norm. Which is not to say that the liberals or conservatives are right. But when you have an Archbishop speaking from the pulpit and confusingly throwing divorce, abortion and euthanasia in the same basket in order to put the fear of God into you, it helps to know where he is coming from.

Surely his eminence understands that not everyone in society has chosen his code of conduct as a guideline for how to live happily. Surely he knows that his idea of what is best for society does not necessarily coincide with the idea of happiness of the entire population. Surely his confusing presentation of lumping completely different arguments in one basket was a cheap shot at what he considers as grave threats to his preferred set of social values.

Live and let live

Black holes, divorce and values. It’s a tough one this week. I must admit that it has been difficult to handle, summarise and/or provoke. I invite you all to my blog to continue with the discussion. Bear in mind that the basic tenet in J’accuse is respect for your interlocutor. For the basic answer to the questions of the universe may be 42, you may be liberal or conservative but as I remind my readers occasionally... it’s my blog... and I cry if I want to.

This has been J’accuse, in the words of another blogger... thinking so you don’t have to!

Jacques blogs daily on http://jaccuse.wordpress.com. We will still be taking comments, at least until the black hole gobbles us all up.

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